"I have never welcomed the weakening of family ties by politics or pressure" - Nelson Mandela.
"He who travels for love finds a thousand miles no longer than one" - Japanese proverb.
"Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence." - Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
"When people's love is divided by law, it is the law that needs to change". -
David Cameron.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Skype Families - Making Children's Voices Heard

Below is a guest post by Amanda Beattie, commenting on the impact of UK's family immigration rules on children.  

Amanda is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University and Co-Editor at ISA Compendium, Ethics Section.
Skype Families[1]:
Making Childrens Voices Heard

It appears that there is an emerging hierarchy in the discussions of childrens rights in the UK.  While family law, and its associated institutions, puts the wellbeing of the child at the heart of its negotiations, migration legislation does not.  Children in the UK whose families are subject to immigration controls, owing to their mixed citizenship heritage, lack a voice. 

In September 2015 the Childrens Commissioner in the United Kingdom released Skype Families.  This document reflects on the 160 page report, Family Friendly?[2] it commissioned looking into the wellbeing of UK children affected by the 2012 amendments to Family Immigration rules.   The document provided clear evidence of how the separation of children from at least one parent is detrimental to their wellbeing.

The report indicates that since 2012 an estimated 15,000 children have been separated from their parents because they do not meet the income requirements of family migration requirements.  This separation, they show, is in direct contravention to the duty of care that the state owes to its child citizens.  States are charged with protecting children in Article Three of the Conventions on the Rights of the Child.  Section one clearly states that:

In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interest of the child shall be primary consideration.[3] 

The evidence within the report suggest, according to John Vine (the former Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration) that since the new income requirements came into effect in 2013, only one decision maker in approximately 60 cases, heeded this call. 

This, I believe, is deeply troubling; but, what is more troubling, is that there is, within the UK judiciary, an acknowledged need to keep children with their parents.  I point to the recently decided case of a child, both of whose parents live within the UK, but whose mother wanted to move to Hong Kong with her son.  This would remove him from daily contact with his father.  The Judge, Mr. Justice Wood, denies the mother permission to leave, after her legal representation suggested the use of modern technologies would supplant daily contact between the father and son.  Justice Wood suggests;

The disadvantages of Skype - as any user will know - are all too often the lack of clarity of image, the sound delay even if short, and, as counsel colourfully notes in her closing submissions, you cant hug Skype. 

He continues:

This is a case where a father, despite obstacles, has built up a very good and profound attachment to his son.  The mothers proposals to relocate - even if her proposals for visits, telephone calls and Skype calls are carried out - in practice do not make up for these losses.[4] 

Within this decision there is evidence of the childs best interest being taken into account.  Justice Wood suggests, in his decision, that both the child and the father would suffer is they were not in the same geographic location. 

What I wonder is why in this case?  If it is so clear that such technologies do not suffice to maintain family relations long distance, why do we force other separated families to rely on such technologies to build family bonds, especially when they are not always readily available. 

In another publication, Love Letters to the Home Office, the inability of Skype to enhance family relations is rendered poignantly and despairingly.   One father recounts what it is to live in the UK while his wife and two children live in Peru.

We wanted to bring our children up experiencing both of our cultures, but I had no choice but to leave Peru in July 2013 because of financial difficulties. 

I talk to Vanessa daily, but Skype is a luxury only available in the city centre, which means I rarely see my children.  Sometimes, when I do, Olenka is indifferent, not wanting to talk.  Other times, shes excited, saying Hola, Papi, vamos al parquet? those are the times that fill my heart with joy. 

We have cried often, in despair for our future.  We have cried over not sharing those magical moments that will never return.  Moments gone forever.  Moments like my childrens first days at school.[5] 

The overwhelmingly clear differences in these two cases seems to be geographical and institutional.  The Judge decided to keep a child in the UK where his two parents both already reside, even though the mother grew up in Hong Kong.  This decision, most notably, was made in family court.  For families who live across international boundaries they must rely on immigration tribunals to make their case.  Within these institutional channels, the wellbeing of the child seems to play an insignificant role, even though the harm of separation is (potentially) the same. 

As I reflect on these two experiences I am reminded of the writings of Onora ONeill.[6]  She has published on the idea of children and rights and wonders if rights are the best way to protect children.  She reminds us that rights, for those who lack a voice, must be interpreted by those who have one.  Childrens rights are caught up in hierarchies of power that may, from time to time, forget who they ought to help.   

The 2012 family migration amendments were supposedly brought in to lessen the number of migrant families who rely on welfare and social support.   As Skype Families makes clear, this has not been its result.  The voice of the child, within the migrant struggles in the UK, is one that is over-looked while the voice of the child is contradictorily heard in family courts.   

We must ensure that until such a time that the family migration rules, and in particular the income requirement, are rescinded the voice of the children in mixed citizenship families is heard loud and clear and that there are no hierarchies emerging within the protection of a childs best interest. 

[4] Re R (A Child: Relocation) [2015] EWHC 456 (Fam)
[5] Love Letters to the Home Office.  (2014)  Love letters to the home office, Consilience Media. 
[6] O'Neill, O. (1988). Children's rights and children's lives. Ethics, 445-463.

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